“Continuous evaluation is the lifeblood of a coach.” Gabe
Continuous evaluation goes hand in hand with constant improvement. We e have to start with the assumption that every athlete has the desire to improve.
By continually sharpening the saw, it’s easier to cut the trees.
Dominique had jumped from being an athlete to becoming a model and an owner of her business. Without a college education, she understood that to compete in a world of season women and experienced men, she had to learn fast. Being weak was not an option; misinformed was suicide; it was no time to go back to school, so she had to study on the run. Outside help didn’t exist; she had to earn it on her own.
Dominique had traveled a similar road before. She learned many lessons, one was to fight with every cell in her body, never taking anything for granted. Life is a contact sport, so always be ready, and if you get knocked to the ground, don’t feel sorry for yourself, get up and keep on fighting. Triumphant people are those that play without fear, and fearful people go nowhere. To compete in sports and life with confidence requires you to be at your best every moment.
Dominique’s philosophy is that to be on top of your game, it is crucial to continue improving, and the only way is by continuously monitoring your performance. Honest Self-Evaluation is essential, but sometimes we don’t see our errors, or we are sometimes incredibly negative about our accomplishments. Being perfectionist clouds our vision; that is why every person needs external Evaluation, someone that we trust, that understands the process and our goals. Intelligent people are open-minded and self-confident, receptive to feedback that can help accelerate the process.
Dominique believes that once a person has received and evaluated the information, it is essential to revise the plan, making the necessary adjustments to keep improving. It’s no use having a comprehensive review if we don’t implement the observations. Several mistakes can be made; the first is not to be open to information coming from outside. The second wasting time unnecessarily looking for who agrees with us and third, the most frequent, the new plan with the necessary adjustments is not carried out quickly but instead procrastinating.
Dominique understands that some people knowing that changes are required; they don’t take action; over time, adjustments are more challenging to implement. So once the Evaluation is done, work promptly to achieve that improvement. Once the new process is installed, it’s not the end of the process; it is the beginning. The Continuous Evaluation comes into play, time after time during the entire life of the athlete or the individual; it’s the law of the fittest. Dominique’s advice is to sharpen that machete; once it gets dull, you would not be able to get the way out of the trees.
Continuous Evaluation is an ongoing examination of how the athlete is advancing in all aspects of his game. The assessments should be conducted consistently and objectively. It helps outline levels of performance and expectations for improvements, and it mostly covers strengths, weaknesses, and how to enhance them. Elite athletes, from an early age, take personal initiative contributing to their process using self-evaluation. The goal is to increase general and specific skills.
Constant monitoring allows us to evaluate the process. It can be an excellent opportunity to motivate both the student and the coach. We have to compare the results in terms of practical or developmental goals. Such as motor skills, movement, endurance, power, plus cognitive abilities, advancing to make comparisons against tournament results.
The Evaluation also needs to be comprehensive, covering other aspects to measure the athlete’s capacity accurately. Handling stress during practices and competition; levels of motivation; performance standards such as attitude, quantity, quality. Absorption of information, attention spans. These cognitive behaviors have to be identified to get a clear picture of the influence in the performance. The evaluations are often based on rankings/results; this type of assessment is incomplete, producing false expectations.
Evaluation starts from the coaches comparing the developmental progress against the goals. The assessment has to be honest. Results must be applied during practices to continue increasing the competencies and skills necessary to reach maximum performance. The goal is to continue striving for constant improvement. Has the athlete exceeded the expectations set for him? How is the student responding to the coaching and the training? How is his attitude? We need to ensure that the athlete keeps pushing himself to reach the targets by improving all skills. Athletes have to work extra, acting on the adjustments gain from the Evaluation. Those players must have a clear understanding of what is expected of them. We have to empower them to solve their problems, and they must have the ability to take ownership.
“Making the students take the initiative, benefits everybody.” Gabe
It is powerful to create a culture of Continuous Evaluation, where everybody is involved. High-performance coaches use continuous feedback to deepen the skill concepts, maintaining student engagement in the learning zone. Coaches are more aware of the student’s needs, creating more opportunities for learning. It has to be a three-way communication, including the parents. One of the most prominent mistakes coaches make is to have one-way communication. Continuous Evaluation empowers all members of the team, and Constant assessment is base on objective observations.
The Evaluation can take place in a group, other times one on one. The feedback has to be based on the expected outcome, and it would tell the athlete if he should continue the same way or if changes are necessary. The information should be delivered positively to encourage the athlete. Feedback is a loop where the student actively responds to the observations.
During these talks, students and coaches speak freely, with one objective in mind, to honestly assess the athlete’s development in all areas to continue growing. Frequent feedback about where we are in the process, comparing it to expectations, creates a healthy learning environment; we use continuous Evaluation as a motivational tool. It helps all parties to review the progress opening the possibilities to make adjustments in the master plan. These meetings are about increasing learning and, as a result, better performances.
One of the most critical factors in evaluating the athlete’s capacity is the amount and quality of consistent improvement.
Monica Seles changed the way we worked with our elite players. We used to always “display” our star players on the Stadium Court, like a showcase. It was beneficial for the other students at the Academy to have the opportunity to watch the stars practice. We loved the idea of our elite players being on display every time they stepped onto the court. Professional sports are, after all, a show business. Monica, however, wanted to no part of this “star treatment.” She demanded closed practices. We had to close Courts #40 and #41, installing massive screens around their perimeter, preventing anyone from seeing inside. No one, except for her team, could be present during her training sessions. She had several reasons for going to these extreme lengths to keep people away from her practices. One reason was that she did not want anyone to know her game, but the primary purpose was to prevent distractions. Her workouts always consisted of at least two sparring partners, notably Raul Ordonez, her brother Zultan, and other times Carlos, Raul, and Rene Gomez. I was forced to always have multiple coaches on the court with Monica because she would NEVER, not even during her warm-up, hit a ball down the middle of the court. She would wear her sparring partners, running them relentlessly side to side, rarely making an error. Monica was as close to being a machine, as I have seen. She also never trained or played points or sets with another female player. Instead, she would play points and games with the other male academy juniors. After every practice set, Monica would analyze her performance against her developmental goals. In my many years of coaching, I have never witnessed anyone being so dominant. At fourteen years old, she was beating all of the boys at the Academy but often toying with them. The only players I remember giving her a challenge were ones like Jimmy Spencer, who was a lefty with a good kick serve. Monica would beat Jimmy anyway, despite the fact he was able to hit serves, unlike anything she would see on the women’s tour. She soon became one of the most dominant players on tour.
Monica was very critical of herself. Her expectations were very high; she demanded a lot from us but more from her. We used to sit down frequently with her and her father, Karoly, to analyze where we were in the process. He didn’t pay much attention to results or rankings; Karoly was an ex-olympian, so he understood the importance of first achieving developmental steps. He relied on the Evaluation, starting from the coaches comparing Monica’s progress to her goals. The assessment had to be honest. Results were applied during practices to continue increasing the competencies and skills necessary to reach her maximum performance. He used to say that Monica improved the fundamentals of her technique and tactics and would be the best player in the world. I miss Karoly, and he was right; by the time she was able to accomplish all the performance goals, she became the best tennis player. If not for the accident, Monica would have broken all the records in the game. She was the best.
Coaching involves requirements for improving the athlete’s performance, and it demands physical and cognitive adaptations. High-performance coaches work trough long term plans, teaching developmental skills. Therefore, the Evaluation of the athlete’s progress is a vital responsibility of both coach and athlete. Based on those evaluations, we can accurately measure the advances in technical, physical, and psychological capacities. Results solely judge elite coaches. That is why, during the developmental stages of the athlete, we should put aside our ego and concentrate on the undergoing process of continuous adaptation that the student can transfer to the competition. Then, and only after the player has developed the fundamentals of the game, we can evaluate competition results.
For Monica, repetition and perfection were the cornerstones of her workouts. Decision-making was also crucial to develop her tactical awareness. Game-based training, against her brother Sultan and other boys, only boys, became a fundamental component of Monica’s daily practice. The continuous, non-stop feedback and self-analysis helped Monica obtain a tremendous advantage over her pears in cognitive skills.
“The genius lives in the athlete’s capacity for self-evaluation.”
Pete Sampras was very introverted, polite, and very sure of himself. He was mature for his age, had an incredible work ethic, and took his training seriously. With nearly all of the players that I have trained, at least one of the parents was always very involved with the kid’s training. Pete, however, was in charge of his practices. His parents were very supportive, but they left the training and tournament scheduling to us.
I assigned Joe Brandy (Josie) to be Pete’s coach. Josie was an older coach with years of coaching experience. He believed in repetition and hitting a ton of balls. Every day was the same routine with Pete and Joe. Joe’s philosophy was that tennis is a simple game, and nothing needed to be invented. They would hit thousands of balls crosscourt and thousands of shots down the line, and then they would do the same routine with the volleys. Josie used a Prince Classic racket, which he strung at thirty pounds. He would stand three meters behind, using a continental grip, and simply kept the ball in play for what seemed like forever. During these workouts, Pete was doing all of the work, as he had to generate all the pace because Josie’s ball had no speed on it. At the end of the two-hour practice, Pete would consistently finish exhausted. I remember often asking Pete if he would instead practice with players who would give him more pace, but his answer was always the same: “This is the best practice,” he would say. In the afternoons, Pete played points with the other junior players. He understood his style of play very clearly, and we encouraged him always to be looking to finish his points at the net. Pete was knowledgeable, and he demanded a critical evaluation after every time he played a practice or tournament match.
Pete’s conditioning coach was Pat Etcheberry, whom I had recruited out of the University of Kentucky, where he served as a strength coach. Pat is a Chilean who had competed in the Olympic Games as a track and field athlete. He was a hard worker, and his philosophy was, and still is today, to work the athletes to the maximum. His signature phrase was “No Pain, No Gain.” I can vividly recall Pete sprinting on the old grass soccer field at the Academy, pulling a tire from his waist, finishing the spring, throwing up, and then going again. Every sprint had a goal; Pete wanted to get faster and stronger. The stop-watch became his bench-mark, always figuring out how to beat his best time. To break his times, he had to improve, take-offs, arm and leg strides, all running techniques. After finishing the sprint, listening to the corrections to be made while throwing up and sprinting one more time. Evaluation-correction equals improvement. Often during his matches, after serving and volleying, he would throw up and then continued to beat his opponents. Serve and volley is a more physically taxing game style.
Pete would always be asking for feedback from coaches. The input was essential for him. These types of players are meticulous in their planning and training. He was young but very mature. He was in charge of his plan, and when we met the first time to evaluate his performance, Fritz Nau, which is a very caring coach, started the meeting by praising Pete’s work ethic. Pete is exceptionally polite, and he got along very well with Fritz. To our surprise, Pete smiling, asked him not to patronize him but to give him useful information. Pete was very young at the time. Good players make us work harder; from then on, we knew we had to be very prepared to give him an objective evaluation. Exceptional athletes understand their game, weapons, and abilities. At the same time, they need to know where they are in every step of the process. A continuous evaluation must take place to reach a higher level of performance when coaching a high-performance athlete.
Monica and Pete were able to not only stay in the cutting age of the sport but also surpass their expectations. They, as players and we, as coaches, divide the training by prioritizing their needs. Players need continuous improvement, and the best way is through constant Evaluation. Athletes require a long term plan, with specific parameters and clear objectives, to develop the full potential and enhance the player’s skills every step of the way. We developed regular meetings with both Monica and Pete to assess the improvements in each one of them. We focused on continuous Evaluation, seeking different ways to accelerate the process. Their plans had specific targets to be accomplished inside a particular time. The results of those meetings help us shape their training plans and tournament schedules.
Students are evaluated regularly through the periodization cycles, to see if they are reaching their expectations and whether they are achieving personal goals. Coaches use the results to make the necessary changes to help the student keep improving. Constant Evaluation, feedback, and modifications are fundamental to coach any level of player.
“Athletes must learn early on that they are times to win and times to lose; both are important.”
As a powerhouse, we had many good players, the same ages, from different nationalities and styles of play. In a high-performance environment, the competition is a battle royal; their social status depends on wins and losses. Philip Bexter, a young player from Canada, was the prominent talent coming up. He received all the attention and always practiced on center court, very sure of himself, a strong player. Kei Nishikori was a year younger. After two years in America, he was still getting acclimatized, he practiced in the backcourts, with no soo much portentous of promotion. Phillip and Kei had never practiced together or played against each other. When I talked to Philipp about a match between them, he told me: “bring it own,” but when I asked Kei, he told me he wasn’t ready for that big jump. I said to Kei that I believe in him and that he was ready to move to top-gun. I spoke to both of them, explaining that the match would take place a week later, on a Tuesday, in center court at seven o’clock at night. I wanted to make sure every academy student could watch them play. To make matters more interesting, I posted all around the Academy, pamphlets advertising the event as “The battle of the future Champions.”
The expectations were high. The stadium was full of their peers and other athletes who watched the confrontation of these young but very talented players. Most of them knew Phillip but didn’t know Kei. The match was an incredible learning experience for both of them. Kei played like a Champion, and he destroyed Phillip. That match served for the other students to get familiarized with Kei, which in return understood where he was in his development. The next day Kei was a part of the elite team, ‘Top-Gun.’ Kei gained a lot of confidence after the event.
On the other hand, Phillip also understood where he was in the process and started working even harder. That year Philp was a runner up in the junior French Open. Results are essential to evaluate the progress. The best lessons are those where they teach themselves.
Deciding when and what to evaluate depends on the periodization cycle and the level of performance of each individual. There are different areas involved in the process, and cognitive behaviors play an essential role. Attitudes, behaviors, and confidence can alter the critical thinking of the athlete; their reasoning has to be objective to have the capacity to self-evaluate logically.
“The goal of a coach is that the athlete learns on his own and would not need us.”
Successful athletes learn to evaluate themselves honestly. Our job as coaches is to avoid having dependent young athletes, requiring constant feedback. Players have to be independent thinkers, and they must be able to assess their performances precisely. One of our most reliable procedures as coaches is to ask every student what they learned after each practice. We do this in a small group, usually four players. These interactions are productive, students get to learn from their peers, and they also get better analyzing themselves. By learning from each other in small groups, the information multiplies.
“Self-assessment refers to the involvement of learners in making judgments of their progress, particularly their achievements and outcomes. Self-assessment is formative in that it contributes to the learning process and helps learners direct their energies to improvement areas. The term is used to encompass the two key elements in any assessment decision. The identification of criteria or standards to be applied to one’s work. And the making of judgments about the extent to which work meets these criteria.” (Boud and Falchikov 1989).
Self-evaluation motivates the athletes to be more responsible for their development. Mature players take responsibility for their training and performance. When the player learns to use this self-evaluation, he becomes more confident and enthusiastic, placing more effort into his practices.
Emiliana Arango was nine years old, always a feisty player, young but with a lot of court sense. She came with her mother and had to play against a boy the same age on the first day. She started with a commanding lead but lost the match. As we usually do, we brought both players and asked them what they had learned from the match. The boy had been with us and was fast to answer what he had done well and what he thought he needed to improve. Emiliana was upset. First, she asked the mother to respond. We told her as a player; it was her responsibility to answer. She hesitated and then said that she had learned a lot, that she was terrible as a tennis player, that tennis was a waste of her time. Before she could continue, I stopped her. I told her to take her time, and I was expecting smart answers. When she relaxed, which took a while, I asked her to give me three things she had done well, after Emiliana answered I asked her to provide me with three things she could have done better. I tell them from the beginning that we don’t accept stupid answers.
Emiliana, through the years, acquired more knowledge and expertise. It is essential, especially after matches where the players have not performed well, that they learn to control their emotions first. Only after controlling their feelings, they can tap into the intellect. Eventually, they learn to analyze the different phases, tactical, technical, emotional, tempo, tension, opponents adjustments, and much more during the competition. The more matches they play, the more knowledge and experience, the more they can use objective criteria to evaluate all the alternatives. Learning that continuous Evaluation is an ongoing examination of how they are advancing in all aspects of their games makes a big difference.
A highly developed culture based on constant Evaluation empowers the students to assess their progress through accurate feedback. As a result of these interactions, the students find the training exciting and dynamic, accelerating the learning. Promoting a culture of constant Evaluation encourages the students and coaches to self-improve.
Every day after practices and competition, the athletes have to know five things they did well, and five they need to improve.